A Mischief Of Magpies

If the Sun were the size of a beach ball then Jupiter would be the size of a golf ball and a Mischief of Magpies would be as small as a pea.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Personal And Political Faces Of War: A Film Review Of 'Jarhead'

I actually saw 'Jarhead' weeks ago, and I've only just got around to composing a review of it, mostly because I wish to respectfully disagree with Head Apollo's comments about it here, so I'm sorry for its lack of timeliness.

The plot doesn't need much explanation - a young man joins the Marines, and goes through some hard training just before they head to Kuwait to fight the Iraqi invasion that precipitated the First Gulf War. They have months and months of sitting around to deal with, and have to wait a long time for a small part in the war.

The obvious criticism of 'Jarhead', that it is a movie about nothing, and about people waiting instead of doing, is not without its truth. The men are bored in the desert. Little concerns become big issues, and time drags on for them. For the most part, however, director Mendes keeps enough action coming at a brisk enough pace that, although the war doesn't start for the most part of the film, the wait is never dull.

There are two levels on which 'Jarhead' resonated with me, and if I may, I should like to analyse them in a little depth. The first was on a personal level. Dr Johnson once said:

"I suppose every man is shocked when he hears how frequently soldiers are wishing for war. The wish is not always sincere; the greater part are content with sleep and lace, and counterfeit an ardour which they do not feel; but those who desire it most are neither prompted by malevolence nor patriotism; they neither pant for laurels, nor delight in blood; but long to be delivered from the tyranny of idleness, and restored to the dignity of active beings."
Johnson: Idler #21 (September 2, 1758)

I think that this may be about as true a statement about war as you are likely to find. I genuinely believe that most men, at some point, consider the action and interest of war with a healthy regard - wars, after all, are not made up of mere soldiers these days, but consider the vast number of people who delight in war correspondence. The feeling of being safe but nonetheless involved must be a very powerful one. On a personal level, I hope to visit a warzone before I die, and I don't mind admitting such. When Swoff, the main character, arrives at barracks for the first time, he is asked why he joined up: 'I got lost on the way to college', he says. He means it as a literal joke, but there's a metaphorical truth behind it. Perhaps he flunked his last couple of exams, maybe he was never quite smart enough for college. We don't find out, but who can deny the interest of the possibility of an Army life instead of a low-paid job on civvy street? Even, indeed, a high paid one, as Swoff's Staff Sergeant, played with force by Jamie Foxx, points out, when, in a heart to heart sort of a moment, he reveals that he could have a good job working for his brother, with a decent wage and car paid for, but where's the thrill?

'Jarhead' is, as most reviewers have pointed out, not exactly totally unique amongst war films. The opening scenes recall 'Full Metal Jacket', while the soldiers watch both 'Apocalypse Now' and 'The Deer Hunter' during the film, so it's firmly within a certain canon. Nonetheless, it is still a worthwhile part of that genre because of its careful individual humanisation of the soldiers involved.

It's no secret that Mendes' strength as a director is his visual flair - both 'American Beauty' and 'Road To Perdition' couldn't look any better - so 'Jarhead' is no different. Perhaps my favourite moment, a moment which really shows you what the film is trying to achieve, is a short tracking shot immediately as the Marines get off the plane in the Gulf. They step out onto a desertscape filled with masses of military equipment and personnel, yet at the same time you know this is just the smallest fraction of the whole. When America goes to war, boy does America go to war.

And what a strange war the First Gulf War was. As is argued in this review, which is well worth reading, the military interventions of the nineties were as much a search for a political meaning in the West as they were for policy goals in the Middle East. The nineties was a decade of fractious political division over very little - the breakdown of class boundaries in America and Britain, combined with the 'triangulation of the issues', led to a political environment where consensus was difficult to achieve. Therefore, morally-led invasions or military operations were a useful tool to create a level of agreement - it's pretty hard for anti-war activists to oppose reversing the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam, or the Srebrenica massacre, after all. By imbuing the war with a moral meaning, it became important to win it as quickly as possible, and it is this fact that leads to the much talked-about scenes of the military impotence of a sniper like Swoff.

As a comment on the changing nature of war, on both political and technological fronts, and the inevitable clash that has with the unchanging personal nature of war, 'Jarhead' is an intelligent and complex piece. Oh, and it's pretty funny too.


At 9:42 pm, Blogger Clairwil said...

Id really like to see that film actually despite the other reviews I've read. I read the book and loved it.

At 9:43 pm, Blogger ill man said...

Not having read the book, I can honestly say the premise didn't inspire me greatly, but I have a bad habit of being wrong about things.

As for reviews, there are actually people out there that think A Cock And Bull Story was rubbish. Are they mad?

At 11:19 pm, Blogger Steve55 said...

Put simply, yes. How anyone can watch that film and think to themselves that they've wasted their time is beyond me. I have little knowledge of the source, but even I can see that the film's unusual structure is simply an echo of the novel.

Someone today claimed it 'wasn't funny.' How could that be? There were so many gags I barely stopped!

Humanity, eh?

At 8:20 pm, Blogger Head Apollo said...

Back when it was fashionable and trendy to read postmodern, comic works written by 18th century clergymen, I read Tristram Shandy. That, my friend, is how to do well with the ladies.

Jarhead still sucks.


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